My son Josh once wrote me a letter in which he described hiking alone in the mountains of Ecuador, fourteen thousand feet above sea level. The tiny lights of a village shone below him, and the snowcapped cone of a volcano was visible in the distance. “The stars and planets are incredibly low, large, and brilliant here,” he wrote. The tone of his letter was ecstatic, like Sufi poetry — love and immanence spiced with joy. As I read it, I could see him with his large blue backpack, his T-shirt and faded shorts, his tanned face and his dark hair in need of a cut. I imagined him stopped in the middle of a path, eyes raised toward the great light show above, then walking on a bit, tripping occasionally because he was looking up, but not falling. I recall this image often: Josh’s eyes full of stars; those emblems of heaven humbling themselves to meet him halfway; the boldness of my son’s unfolding heart.
A week later, Josh was shot and nearly killed on an island of the Maranon River, in the jungles of Peru. Only minutes before, he had witnessed the death of his friend Patchen Miller, who was gunned down by the same bandits, his body lost to the muddy water, never to be found. In an instant, the brilliant glow of a heavenly body was extinguished by gunfire. Then the world went on about its business. For Josh that night, it was the business of survival, of evading the killers, who chased him for hours. He made it out alive.
Before the fall, the fullness. No wonder whenever one praises something in Yiddish — the beauty of a child, a piece of good luck — one quickly adds, Kunne hura, to ward off evil. What I mean is, you can reach the top of a mountain — Sinai, let’s say — and admire the view, so wide that it includes everything, even God. You stare, chest heaving, but after a while your awe fades. You grow hungry, or bored, and move on.
Or think of Eden, of the apple, the pear — any pregnant thing: a woman before her own fruit falls. Consider Oedipus at the height of his powers, with the fiercest of eyes. Consider the fullness of a child’s mind, when imagination is reality, before it is drawn out into reason.
Before the falling off, there is the fullness of time, lots of it. Let’s say you’re traveling with a friend. The two of you are in New Mexico together in a rental car. You’re not feeling too well, and your friend is driving. You want to listen to something sad to match the ache in your stomach, so you slip in a tape of a folk singer you like and fast-forward to one of her love-gone-bad songs. You listen and begin to feel a little better, because she sings some of your pain. But there’s your friend beside you, whom you’ve been with for so many days and nights now that you can’t help but see all her faults: the eternal optimism, the unrelentingly positive spirituality. And now she says, “God, that woman’s a whiner. I don’t like her,” and you say, “But I do,” and she says, “She’s so negative,” and you say, “So what?” And then your friend says she wants to play some kind of chant, and you say you hate new-age music, and the two of you are momentarily so fed up with each other and with this dry landscape without trees, hills, or hope that you want to push each other out of the car.
Or let’s say it’s twenty years earlier, and you’ve really fallen for someone — his mind, his face, his body, his wit. You make love over and over for longer than you can even imagine now, when there’s so much less time left in the world. You remember the fullness of your love for him, how there was no place higher for you to rise toward, how you were tethered to each other so that, even when you were apart, a brilliant thread connected you both, and you couldn’t imagine living any other way — until the fullness consumed you both, and neither of you could breathe, because the other had replaced even air. And so began the fall. It was so slow that you were barely able to perceive it: how plenty contracts, how that bright thread wrapped itself around your necks until you couldn’t speak the truth. And after so much fullness, all you wanted was to fall from his arms, fall from that rumpled, sex-stained bed into the small cell of a monk, still and white. A narrow bed with one window above it. One pillow, one sheet, one blanket. A slender table with a candle and a white book of matches. A floor of varnished wood upon which light falls and rests so clearly that the only place you want to look is down.